Vodka is a clear and (ideally) odorless, flavorless alcohol that is popularly consumed in the U.S. and across the world. It lends itself well to mixing, making it a versatile spirit capable of carrying a variety of flavors or fortifying any number of drinks. Vodka has a long history closely tied to the frigid region of its origin.
Origins of Vodka
The Slavic people of Eastern Europe (as well as Scandinavians to the North) took alcohol very seriously. The rise of Christianity in this region can be traced to the Grand Prince of Kievs decision to embrace the religion, largely because of its tolerance of alcohol.
The regions freezing temperatures complicated the import of beer and wine, both of which would freeze in transit as a result of their low alcohol content. With the introduction of the distilling process in the 1400s, Eastern Europe began to develop beverage spirits that would not freeze, all of which were generically termed “vodkas.”
Russians are proud that vodka was created in their homeland. The name itself comes from the Russian word voda, meaning “water.” Commercial vodka production began as early as the 14th Century, and the Russian ruler Ivan the Terrible established the first government-run vodka monopoly in 1540. This led to rampant moonshining.
Vodka production became integral to Russian society. Aristocrats distilled vodka on their land, and the government launched vodka-making innovations, such as charcoal filtration, at its test distilleries. In fact, by the 18th century, vodka production was the most technologically advanced industry in Russia.
Vodka by Region
The leading vodka-producing countries are:
While these regions produce all types of vodka, only the premium vodkas, those produced from wheat and rye, are sold outside these regions.
Poland, another major vodka producer, exports vodkas made from grain and potatoes. Finland produces mostly wheat vodkas, as do Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. A rising producer in recent decades is Sweden, which has grown its vodka exports substantially.
The United States and Canada produce vodkas from grains and molasses. Law dictates that U.S. vodkas are neutral spirits so they all generally taste the same, with some being smoother due to more aggressive refining processes.
Caribbean vodkas are almost all made from molasses, and most are blended and bottled in other countries.
Popular Vodka Brands
While vodkas vary in quality, flavor and country of origin, some vodka brands are synonymous with excellence. The next time you order or make a vodka cocktail, try one of the following:
- Absolut vodka
- Belvedere vodka
- Finlandia vodka
- Grey Goose vodka
- Skyy vodka
- Smirnoff vodka
- Three Olives vodka.
How to Make Vodka
Distillers produce vodka by fermenting mash made from grains such as:
- vegetable matter
The sugars created by the fermented mash are then distilled. While all vodka is produced clear and colorless, vodka produced in a pot will still carry some slight aroma and delicate flavor of the type of mash that produced it. Vodka produced in pot stills also usually requires a second distillation to rid it of residual color and/or flavor.
After the distilling process, the mix is typically filtered through tanks of charcoal mixtures. This process takes out any unwanted flavors or aromas. The purified spirit, which is roughly 95 percent alcohol, gets diluted with water. Because vodka is not generally aged, it can be bottled right after the purification process.
Preparing Vodka Drinks and Cocktails
Vodka tastes best when served chilled. Keeping vodka bottles in the refrigerator or freezer is a good way to ensure this alcohol is always ready to drink. The chill enhances desirable flavors and inhibits undesirable ones. Chilling also brings out just a hint of an oily quality in the vodka.
Vodka serves as the ultimate mixing spirit. Its neutral quality enables the mixer to be the dominant flavor. Vodka also works well as a substitute for similar spirits, such as gin, in drinks like the martini. In fact, although the classic martini is made with gin, vodka martinis are also widely popular.
Russians enjoy straight vodka with food, typically caviar. However, other well-seasoned hors doeuvres or rich snacks are also good accompaniments. Flavored vodkas work well as aperitifs or served with coffee and desserts.
Russians and other Eastern Europeans typically drink vodka as shots, shouting festive toasts as they gulp them down. They dont generally mix anything with vodka but may chase it with a swig of beer or cola.
Drinking vodka in the United States did not become popular until the 1950s. By the 1970s, vodka became the most popular spirit in the nation, outselling bourbon. Vodka is a main ingredient in several popular drinks including the Bloody Mary, the Screwdriver and the odka martini.